Bridging the Gap
Darryl, Ben, and Matt have asked some very good questions that all seem to revolve around one issue: the nasty problem of interpreting the Bible as God's Word. I say, "nasty" because it is not only a difficult issue, but it also creates difficulties between us.
To answer the question, let me say at the outset that this problem is not unique to the free church tradition (although you'd think that churches taking a more magisterial approach would not have to deal with such problems--hardly, members of the RCC or the Anglican communion have members who do not share the interpretation of their leaders).
At the risk of over simplification, I think the solution is recognizing that interpretation of the Bible belongs to the community of faith (both now and then, both clergy and laity). John writes that his church should "test the spirits" to see if interpretations are true. Peter writes that no Scripture/prophecy can be interpreted by one person. In other words, if the Spirit is responsible for leading us to understand the Scriptures, and since no single person (or group) controls the Spirit, then the only way we can understand the Scriptures is to interpret them together (Ben's suggestion is relevant here).
So, what happens if we disagree? Are some interpretations more important than others?
What I think would help our discussions is to categorize which doctrines are primary, secondary, tertiary, and quadriary. I know that sounds risky to some; it makes it appear that we think some Scriptures are more important than others. That's not what I'm saying. Rather, since all doctrine is of human invention, then we are merely recognizing some of our interpretations are more important than others.
Here's how I would break it down: primary doctrines are of eternal significance, secondary doctrines are of temporal significance, tertiary doctrines are of cultural significance, quadriary doctrines are of personal significance.
Honestly, most scholarly work is done on the second and third levels. Most lay people don't think beyond the first (I think that's what Matt is getting at) and the fourth levels. Therefore, a discussion that acknowledges a rubric like this I think would help us get beyond the ivory tower work of scholars and clergy, and the isolationist/obscurantist views of the laity.
What do you think?